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Obama goes to battle with Reid over NRC appointment

- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2012

A day after a very public prodding by Senate Republicans, the White House said Thursday that President Obama will renominate Kristine Svinicki to serve on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — a move that puts him at odds with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who vehemently opposes her appointment.

Ms. Svinicki now is at the center of the biggest federal nomination fight of 2012, a battle that defies party lines.

"The president believes that we need to have an NRC that's functioning effectively," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday in confirming the move. "The president will renominate Ms. Svinicki, because he doesn't want to have a break in service in June when her current term expires."

Mr. Reid said Ms. Svinicki lied at her last confirmation hearings and doesn't deserve another term in the position, but Republicans and even some Democrats have praised her work on the commission.

Republican senators said it appears Mr. Reid instead was trying to protect a former aide, Gregory Jaczko, who now serves as chairman of the NRC. Ms. Svinicki and the other commissioners had accused Mr. Jaczko of being verbally abusive toward female staffers and shutting out the rest of the commission from decision-making.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, said Ms. Svinicki was confirmed to her first term in 2008 without a single objection in the Senate.

"I guess the question would be to Sen. Reid, 'What has changed?' " Ms. Murkowski said Thursday. "The only thing that has changed is that she has had the courage to step forward and has blown the whistle on her chairman, and the chairman happens to be a good friend to Sen. Reid."

The NRC oversees civilian uses of nuclear power. Its role has come under sharper focus after the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan sustained a meltdown last year.

On the five-member commission, the chairman and two members traditionally are selected by the president and the other two members are selected by the opposition leader in the Senate — in this case Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who went public Wednesday with Republican concerns that Ms. Svinicki was being punished for blowing the whistle.

The White House's nomination puts Mr. Reid in a tough spot.

He has accused Ms. Svinicki of lying about her work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste program, which had been planned for Nevada until Mr. Reid led opposition that halted it. Mr. Reid's spokesman said Ms. Svinicki has accumulated an "abysmal" record on nuclear safety.

Mr. Reid told reporters Thursday that it was Mr. Obama's right to nominate Ms. Svinicki, but he seemed in no rush to push her nomination through his chamber.

"That's why we have a Congress, and there'll be hearings held, and we'll approach that when we have to. That's just not right now," he said.

Several other senators, including Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, also are poised to oppose her confirmation.

"Sen. Heller will oppose any nominee to the commission that supports moving the Yucca Mountain project forward," spokesman Stewart Bybee said.

Naming the minority party's picks has been a long-standing courtesy, but it is not a rule.

Still, in choosing to send Ms. Svinicki's name to the Senate, Mr. Obama has put his imprimatur on her. She also has the backing of some key Senate Democrats as well, including Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who has publicly called for her reappointment, and another Democratic senator who privately has circulated a letter of support to colleagues.

Ms. Svinicki and three other commissioners — one Republican and two Democrats — complained last year about Mr. Jaczko's behavior as chairman, including charging that he tried to intimidate commission members and staffers. They said his behavior toward female staffers was particularly abusive.

One of those commissioners, William Magwood, one of the Democrats, told Congress last year that he spoke with three women who had complained of bad behavior, including "a raging verbal assault."

He said one woman described how, after an encounter with Mr. Jaczko, she "couldn't stop shaking" and her supervisor had to calm her down before she could drive home safely.

The issue exploded into the public, and the White House had to step in and mediate.

Mr. Jaczko promised to try to do a better job of communicating with the other commissioners.

Underlying the Svinicki nomination fight is also an ideological divide. The four commissioners are seen to be more willing to work with the nuclear energy industry, while Mr. Jaczko has pushed for more restrictions.

Mr. Carney, the White House spokesman, said Thursday that there has been no thought of asking Mr. Jaczko to step down as chairman. His position expires June 30, 2013.

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